The great Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney has been mentioned a number of times on this site. It is a very telling indication of our times that such a visionary man is so little known, and usually slandered when mentioned at all. You can find the entire collection of his written works at the Dabney Archive, all of which are well worth reading. However, such a massive undertaking can be a bit overwhelming, and so on Sundays I have begun posting bite-sized excerpts from Dabney’s works with perhaps a little bit of my own commentary. This will be done in hopes of promoting wider readership for this great man. You can find links to all the previous “Dabney on Sunday” posts at the bottom of this post.
The following excerpt is taken from an article Dabney wrote for the Texas Review in 1891, entitled “The Labor Union, the Strike, and the Commune.”
The moral and economic objections are patent and trite. . . . The [labor union] system establishes the state of chronic social warfare between employers and employed, instead of that condition of kindly co-operation, which is so essential to happiness of feeling and prosperity in the business. The strike entails a fearful destruction of wealth. All profit on the plant of the employers is lost; while the savings of the laborers are eaten up, in unproductive consumption, and their time, which is their money, is wasted for naught. The community as a body is left just so much the poorer. . . .
The true logic of the [labor union] system is this: It is a forcible attempt to invade and dominate the legitimate influence of the universal economic law of supply and demand. This law instructs us that generally the relation of supply to demand in any commodity must regulate its price. Under this law all production must proceed in civilized society. It is under this law the capitalist must produce and market the goods brought forth by his mine or his factory. It is under this law the farmer and planter must rear and sell their crops. Labor is also a commodity as truly as wheat, or cotton, or cloth. All citizens whose circumstances prevent the successful formation of labor unions must also contract to sell their labor under the dominion of this same law of demand. . . . The advocates of labor unions do not pretend to deny—they expressly avow—that the purpose and end of their system is to contravene this law as to the commodity which they have to sell, that is a particular form of labor. They perceive that the labor union and the strike are expedients from which the great majority of their fellow citizens are utterly precluded by the nature of their occupations, and that is the very reason why the unionists value these expedients. They know perfectly, that if all the other forms of labor in the commonwealth found it equally feasible to protect their own occupations from the law of supply and demand by their own labor unions and strikes, the whole system would be nugatory. For instance, what the spinners in a factory gained by forcing up their wages, would be neutralized by what they would lose to the farmers when they came to buy their food; if the farmers also could have a labor union which would force up the price of their crops proportionately and equitably.
From this point of view the thoughtful reader sees, that labor unions are rather conspiracies against fellow citizens and fellow laborers, than against oppressive employers. . . . Here appear at once the real purpose and the iniquity of our existing system of labor unions. C. D. is a weaver in a cloth factory. Mr. E. F. is an honest farmer who must buy a good deal of this cloth to clothe his family and himself. One element of the cost of the cloth to E. F. is the wage of C. D., the weaver; but C. D. has resolved that E. F., his fellow citizen and equal, shall not buy that element in the value of the cloth at that equitable rate which should be generally dictated by the law of supply and demand: C. D. will force up that price against that farmer by the artificial forces of his monopoly-ring, his threats and his strikes. But C. D. fully expects to buy the bread and meat for his family from the farmer, E. F., under the strict operation of supply and demand. There is equity and democratic equality with a vengeance! But should any law or labor union enable the farmer to enhance the price of his food-products above market rates as determined by supply and demand, C. D. would declare himself much outraged. His labor union is a good rule for him; but it must not “work both ways.” . . .[Another] thing to be noted is, the groundless and impudent claim of these labor unions that they are contending for the “rights of American labor.” This tacitly assumes that the small minority of persons who belong to labor unions are the only people in America who labor. . . . Yet the direct effect of the arts of the labor unions is: to raise the price of every roof which shelters, of every chimney and every pound of coal which warms, and of every yard of cloth which covers these worse paid [non-union] laborers in favor of a small minority already overpaid in comparison.
Earlier in the article, Dabney gives the example of a well-to-do man who owns stock in a factory which has lost money due to a strike by a labor union and must tighten his belt and layoff four of his household employees and have his children, wife, and himself do the work instead. Dabney places the blame of these layoffs squarely on the labor union, saying:
Here are four deserving poor persons who are hit hard as a consequence of this decline in the stockholder’s income. But it is the strikers who are really responsible for these cruel blows. . . .
In every case where injury or constriction is planned against the resources of the property class the injury designed for them will be mainly evaded and handed down, until it alights upon the bottom class beneath them. Here we have a biting illustration of the folly (a folly equal to its dishonesty) of all the hostilities of “labor against capital.” Every blow which the working men are instigated to aim at their employers must prove a boomerang.
Previous Dabney on Sundays: